When it was time for Winona James to return to school, her family hid her in brush near their home in the Carson Valley to prevent officials from the Stewart Indian School from finding her.
James, a member of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California was among the more than 20,000 students who were sent to the boarding school as part of a federal program designed to forcibly assimilate Native Americans into dominant Euro-American culture. She attended for one year, but her family feared for her life.
“I can remember that my grandmother didn’t want me to come back to Stewart because she thought I would never, ever go back home again,” she said in interview for a University of Nevada, Reno history initiative in 1984.
The Stewart School in Carson City is among more than 350 residential schools that the U.S. Interior Department plans to examine as part of the Federal Boarding School Initiative Review, which includes an investigation into student deaths and known and possible burial sites.
On Friday, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak heard stories from tribal elders about the school’s history. The governor, tribal leaders, state agency heads and Interior officials discussed ways the state — which funded the school’s construction and helped gather children to send there — can contribute to the federal efforts to confront historic injustices and intergenerational trauma and honor the children who died at boarding schools.
Descendants of Paiute, Washoe and Shoshone people who attended the Stewart School during the 90 years it was in operation told stories of bounties being offered to bring Native children to the school; of students attempting to run away due to starvation; and of extreme overcrowding in dormitories.
“It is a tragedy that it has taken so long for the federal government to undertake an honest accounting of an immoral program that existed here for generations,” Sisolak said at the Stewart Indian School, which now houses a cultural center and museum.
The governor apologized on behalf of the state and promised to fully cooperate with the Interior Department and its first Native American secretary, Deb Haaland, as they review records and investigate the federal government’s past policies and oversight of Native American boarding schools.
Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, said it was unclear how many children had attended or died at the Stewart Indian School.
Though the federal government never focused on keeping track of students, Montooth said, the fact that it took all records and archival materials when it shuttered the school in 1980 has made accounting for deaths difficult.
Despite the lack of available archival material, Native Americans in Nevada continue to reckon with the history of boarding schools, she said: “There’s not a Paiute, Shoshone or Washoe person in this state who doesn’t have a direct connection to this campus.”
Since children’s remains were discovered at a residential school in Canada, tribes both there and in the United States have pushed the government to acknowledge the enduring effects of policies that Pennsylvania boarding school founder Richard Pratt described in the 19th century as “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”
Native children as young as 4 were forcibly taken from their families and sent to off-reservation boarding schools. Their hair was cut. They were converted to Christianity. And they were prohibited from speaking their native languages. They were often subjected to military-style discipline and, until reforms in the mid-20th century, curriculums focused heavily on vocational skills and, for girls, homemaking.
Historians say many of the schools were overcrowded, physical abuse was widespread, and many students died and were buried in unmarked graves.
Tribal leaders believe children were secretly buried somewhere on the campus of the Stewart School but have not yet decided whether to dig up and repatriate bodies back to their homes or to honor them by leaving them in the ground as is custom for many tribes, including the Shoshone. In New Mexico, Utah and elsewhere, researchers are using ground-penetrating radar to search for remains. Sisolak said it would be tribal leaders’ decision how to investigate the history.
Amber Torres, chairwoman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, said assimilation policies like boarding schools robbed Native Americans and their descendants of Indigenous languages. She wants Nevada to teach languages like Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone in public schools to ensure language survives.
“If it dies, we die,” she said.
Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.